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Equal Opportunities and “Managing Diversity”

"Equal Opportunities" terminology is now rather old hat; "diversity" is the current buzzword. The sub-text is to get us to celebrate differences rather than to problematise them. Worthy sentiment, but in practice, variations between students do present real challenges.

This is an area which warrants a site all of its own: anything which I can say here is bound to be inadequate, and yet without being too pious or politically correct, the matter is very important and has severely practical implications.

Let's start with the assumption that no-one reading this sets out wittingly to discriminate against anyone in their class, and then follow some basic points. This is one of those situations where you may not learn anything new, but a re-statement of the obvious can sometimes put things in a different light.

Equal Opportunities

This is not about treating everybody the same. The phrase "equal opportunities" trips so readily off the tongue, sometimes shortened to "equal opps", to the extent that we sometimes forget what it means. For our purposes, it means ensuring that everyone in the class has the same opportunity to learn—and by extension, to get their qualification. In the end, it is up to us to provide those opportunities, but up to them to take them.

Creating opportunities means:

  • removing obstacles, and
  • ensuring that everyone in the class is on a "level playing-field" to use another of the clichés of the discourse.

Whom does it apply to?

Everyone. That's the point. But providing for some people, principally those from minority groups, requires more effort than for others. That is not surprising: institutions are built around the requirements of the majority.

The basis—in western liberal democracies—is an assumption that you should not discriminate against people on the grounds of anything which they cannot help or which is fundamental to their identity. See the Banton model.


But it is part of our business to discriminate. We do it all the time when it comes to assessment. This model would suggest that if someone is not intelligent (problematic concept) enough to grasp what we are teaching, or too clumsy to manage the skills required, then we should not penalise them for it—which would mean awarding them credit like everyone else. Indeed, if they could argue that their laziness was something they could not help, they ought to pass despite having done no work.

Not so. If a personal quality is relevant to the course requirements, then it is fair to use it as the basis for discrimination between students. The important question is whether what we assess is all relevant (valid) or not.

A student whose first language is not English, and who is taking a course in horticulture, fails an assessment because of her written expression. Is this fair?

  • It all depends on the relevance of written expression to the occupational requirements of horticulture. Assuming that writing is not a major requirement in most jobs in horticulture, and that she gets the names of plants correct, the assessment is discriminatory.

Candidates for being police dog handlers used to have to pass a selection test in which they had to run 100 yards/metres carrying a 50lb/25 kilo sack. The rationale was that they might have to carry an injured dog out of danger. This test effectively eliminated women from the ranks of dog handlers. It was eventually changed, lightening the load, because of this.

  • But the dogs had not got any lighter! Was it relevant or not? The test was presumably empirical: how many times had the situation ever actually arisen in practice? It could be argued that if it ever arose, the test should be kept: if not, it should have been abandoned completely. Simply adjusting the load was inconsistent.

Two significant developments in post-16 education in the UK relate closely to relevance issues:

  • Competence-based assessment, as in National Vocational Qualifications, is strict about this criterion. The preferred mode of assessment is direct observation.
  • On the other hand, the advent of a Key Skills qualification, and its incorporation into vocational qualifications, may well discriminate against students who are competent in their area, but not in these more general transferable skills. What about the dyslexic student, for example, or our second-language horticulture student?
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This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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